Not many of us often ask what Fred Flintstone would eat. But for those considering the Paleo diet, the question is, if it was good enough for cavemen to eat, is it good enough for us?
“It’s the diet of our ancestors,” says Elana Amsterdam, author of Paleo Cooking from Elana's Pantry: Gluten-Free, Grain-Free, Dairy-Free Recipes (Ten Speed Press 2013; $17.99), who has been following the diet for 12 years. “Humans were hunter-gatherers during the Paleolithic era, some10, 000 to 2.5 million years ago.”
Following a Paleo-based diet doesn’t mean serving brontosaurus steaks or scrambled pterodactyl eggs. But it is radical compared to what’s on our plates today.
“The Paleo Diet mimics the diets of people who lived during the Paleolithic era,” says Lori Granich, Registered Dietitian at the Midwest Bariatric Institute at Franciscan St. Margaret Health in Dyer. “The diet focuses on natural foods that have been around since the beginning of time.”
In those times, our ancestors bereft of convenience stores and fast food joints selling Twinkies, soft drinks and Big Macs had to settle for unprocessed foods, low in fat and sodium, higher in potassium and fiber. Lean proteins came from grass-fed meats, fish and eggs.
“It wasn’t until about 10,000 years ago, with the advent of the agricultural revolution, that grains were introduced into our diet,” says Amsterdam. “For 99% of our existence we lived on a grain free diet. This means grains are a new food and I think certain people, such as me, can’t adapt to digesting grains.”
Indeed, Amsterdam who also authored Gluten-Free Cupcakes: 50 Irresistible Recipes Made with Almond and Coconut Flour, was diagnosed as having Celiac disease in 1998 and has been grain free since 2001.
“The Paleo diet some of the things that I teach in my diabetes classes,” says Terri Sakelaris, M.S., a registered dietitian and Certified Diabetes Educator at the Community Hospital Diabetes Center in Munster. “My classes emphasize the Mediterranean diet—fresh food, salads, filling up on fruits and vegetables, not too big into bread and baked goods and avoiding processed foods. The Paleo diet is similar though it’s also more restrictive.”
Sakelaris points out that several studies including one entitled Mediterranean Diet, Lifestyle Factors, and 10-Year Mortality in Elderly European Men and Women which ran in the Journal of the American Medical Association indicates that even in old age a Mediterranean-style diet along with a bit of wine, some physical activity and no smoking helps people live longer compared to people who did not follow this diet along with the other factors.
While we can never totally recreate the foods of our forebears, for those following the Paleo diet, the main source of carbohydrates come from fruits and vegetables, there’s an emphasis on the type of healthy fats found in nuts, and oils such as olive and flaxseed. Not recommended are dairy, refined sugars, processed foods, cereals and grains, potatoes and refined vegetable oils.
“The supporters of the diet state that our food industry has developed faster than our bodies could adapt,” says Granich. “This is the reason for the rise in chronic diseases. The diet focuses on ‘real’ food which is something I believe people should focus on. It is rich in fiber, vitamins and minerals, and antioxidants; the components of our diets that fight off disease."
But there are, of course caveats.
“The Paleo diet is short on carbohydrates,” says Leelarani Chigurupati, RD, CSO, a registered dietitian at Methodist Hospitals who is designated as a board certified specialist in Oncology Nutrition working directly with individuals at risk for, or diagnosed with, any type of malignancy or pre-malignant conditions, one of only 13 in the state. One-third of the diet is protein which exceeds the recommendations of the 2010 Dietary Guidelines. “It was a surprise for me to read about the exclusion of whole grains and dairy.”
According to Kim Kramer, RDN, LDN, Ingalls Wellness Dietitian, Kids Eat Right Crew Illinois Representative and the Illinois Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics Media Spokesperson, the Paleo diet appears to be the newest in a long run of trendy diets. But she worries that by chopping off the bottom of the food pyramid, we’re eliminating needed vitamins.
“If people don’t consumer dairy, then where will they get their Vitamin D?” she asks. “More and more people are realizing that deficiencies in Vitamin D are very common particularly in the Midwest.”
Chigurupati also wonders if many people can sustain Paleo 24/7.
“It doesn’t seem practical for our society and it’s costly to eat only wild caught fish, grass-fed meats and organic vegetables,” she says. “The diet is set up that you can have three non-Paleo meals out of every 21 meals. And it talks about exercise and that is good.”
Sakelaris notes that when people eliminate high-calorie processed foods they feel better and have more energy.
“But it’s also important to make sure you’re getting the right nutrition which is what makes the Mediterranean diet so effective,” she says.
According to Granich the Paleo diet has good basic principles—lean proteins, plenty of fruits and vegetables, healthy fats—that can be altered to meet the needs of people today.
“But the Paleo diet does have its set of weaknesses,” says Granich. “First of all, it is very strict and would be hard for most people to stick to for a lifetime. Critics argue that the life expectancy in that era was dramatically different than today which make some question why we would try to mock that time period. The nutrition deficiency problems that used to plague our world have been addressed through fortification in foods, especially grains and dairy and dietary supplements.”
Amsterdam has a suggestion to help with these concerns.
“Many people do an 80/20 Paleo,” she says. “But it just makes sense to eat close to the earth. It’s real food.”